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The empire against the Rus’

A Ukranian-Canadian writer sets the historical context for the widening space between Russia and Ukraine and the political importance of the Nord Stream 2 pipelines.

Author: Myroslav Petriw

As a Ukrainian-Canadian who has served as an election observer, translator, and researcher in Ukraine, and as a lifelong student of Ukraine’s politics and history, I am concerned that Canadians are confused by Putin’s fanciful narratives that are unhelpfully picked up by some western “journalists”. Let me set the context to today’s conflict for you.

Today’s Russian Federation is not a nation-state like most of Europe’s larger countries. Russia is an Empire. Its citizens’ sense of self, their sense of pride and belonging, is tied to a mythology of imperial grandeur, expansion, and plunder. At one time the home of 85 distinct languages, many have since disappeared. Where a nation-state is like an organ, an empire is a tumor. It destroys as it expands, provided that it has a steady and sufficient blood supply. In the case of the Russian Federation that blood supply is the revenue it collects on its sale of oil and natural gas.

Route of Nord Stream 2 (© Shutterstock/MurzilA)

The self-naming of Russia

It was Winston Churchill who once famously described Russia as a Riddle inside a Mystery wrapped in an Enigma. It is worth noting that Winston’s predecessor of the previous century, Benjamin Disraeli, suffered no such confusion. Back in 1876, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli – in a letter to Queen Victoria, proposed “to clear Central Asia of Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian.” He did not call them Russians. Although the Czars demanded that their empire be renamed as the Rossian Empire, many politicians and cartographers alike continued to use the historical term Muscovy.

A look at the Russian Federation shows it to be, in its core and despite many regime changes, a geographical cultural and political continuation of that multiethnic empire, which Genghis and his grandson Batu Khan had created. Historically known as Muscovy and even as Tartary, this heritage bore little respect among the aristocratic circles of 18th century Europe. And so, it was only after gaining full control over the lands of the actual historic Rus’, the Ukrainian lands around Kyiv, that in 1721 Czar Peter the Great renamed the Czardom of Muscovy as the Rossian Empire in a transparent attempt to appropriate the legacy of ancient Rus’. It should be noted that Ukrainians, the inhabitants of the lands of ancient Rus’, used to call themselves “Rusyny”, a word Latinized as “Ruthenians”. In fact the first Ukrainian settlers in Canada registered themselves as “Ruthenians”. The name change, motivated by the need to differentiate themselves from “Russki”, the name adopted by Muscovites, was a slow process that encompassed all Rusyny only in the first decades of the 20th century. Such a process is not unique. At about the same time Wallachians reidentified themselves as Romanians.

In the 20th century, to control the recently re-annexed lands of a Ukrainian National Republic that had tasted independence between 1918 and 1922, Secretary General of the USSR, Joseph Stalin resorted to genocide. In an artificially induced famine (now called the Holodomor) he killed no fewer than 3,950,000, and more likely 6,000,000 Ukrainians in about 15 months between 1932 and 1933. Thus today, the population of Eastern Ukraine consists of the traumatized offspring of the victims of this genocide, mixed with the spawn of its perpetrators.

But today, despite the horrors of this past, the land of Rus’ is again outside the borders of this Rossian Empire.

A widening space

Strange as it may seem, much of the political elite of the empire still feels a phantom limb pain for this missing land. Certainly, the reassembling of the Rossian Empire has been an oft-stated goal of Vladimir Putin. It was on 24 April 2005 that Putin told his country that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. He left no doubt that he intended to right that wrong. On July 12, 2021, Putin actually published his own view of Ukrainian history in which he sees a common “historical and spiritual space”. But it is a space made common by conquest and genocide. It is a brotherhood of Cain and Abel. As the bodies keep piling up, this space, this gap between European democracy and Asiatic despotism gets only wider.

The price Putin will pay

Putin initially attempted to fraudulently install a corrupt pro-Moscow puppet, Victor Yanukovych, as president of Ukraine in late 2004, but was rebuffed by Ukrainians who staged the famous Orange Revolution demanding new elections. Shortly after, Putin hit upon the idea of using natural gas supplies as a weapon. He shut down natural gas supply in the winter of 2006.

Most Russian gas flows to Western Europe through the enormous Ukrainian Gas Transit network, a system with an annual export capacity of 178 billion cubic meters, that includes 13 underground facilities with an active storage capacity of 30.9 billion cubic meters. It was the storage facilities that allowed Ukraine to supply Europe’s and its own energy needs during that winter crisis. Putin repeated this trick some two years later, managing to destabilize Ukrainian politics but not the economy. But he did get Yanukovych elected President in 2010.

Putin realized that the continued use of the Ukrainian system meant that a full-scale war could not be waged against Ukraine without affecting European (read German) energy supplies and Russia’s own cash flow. Natural gas could not be used as a weapon until he bypassed the Ukrainian Gas Transit system. And so, even though the existing Ukrainian system had plenty of excess capacity to supply European needs, bypass pipelines were being laid. Total actual transit volumes for the Ukrainian Gas Transit system in 2020 were reported at 55.8 billion cubic meters, down from 89.6 bcm in 2019, a 78.4 bcm average in 2014-18 and a 107.6 bcm average in 2004-13. The existing capacity was being utilized at only 61 to 31%.

The bypass pipelines, Turkstream (31 bcm capacity built 2016-2020); Nord Stream 1 (55bcm built 2011-2012) and Nord Stream 2 (55bcm built 2018-Sept. 2021) have no economic justification. Their raison d’etre is political; their purpose is war. Nord Stream 2 alone cost $11B, illustrating the price Putin is willing to pay, while impoverishing his own citizens, for conflict in Ukraine.

The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement

It was a shock when President Yanukovych declared in August 2013 that Ukraine intended to sign an association agreement with the EU that November, during the EU summit meeting. This meant that Ukraine would not join Vladimir Putin’s Russian customs union.

Although under pro-western President Victor Yushchenko, Ukraine had been rebuffed by Europe on 9 November 2005, when Commissioner Rehn stated that “The EU’s absorption capacity is stretched to its limits.”; Europe’s, and specifically Angela Merkel’s newfound receptiveness, could only be explained by the discovery and exploration of two major shale gas fields in Ukraine. Shell Oil had the contract to develop the fields. An energy independent Ukraine or even Ukraine as an energy supplier was very attractive indeed. This same reality made Ukraine’s unexpected European overtures a major threat to Gazprom and thus Putin’s Russia.

Russia’s Putin reacted to this new direction with a vicious campaign of trade interruptions, threats, and anti-shale gas propaganda. Yanukovych’s determination appeared to waver after a five-hour off-the-record conversation with Putin in Sochi on 27 October 2013. This was followed by a secret meeting with Putin at the Moscow airport on 9 November.

On 21 November 2013, while Yanukovych was in Vienna still talking association with the EU, his Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov (a Russian) declared that Ukraine would not sign the association agreement with the EU but would instead seek membership in Putin’s customs union. That day, the first protesters took to the Maidan (city square). They hoped that this was merely a rift in Ukrainian politics and that Yanukovych would still sign with Europe. With that hope, crowds began to gather on the Maidan on 24 November 2013 for a peaceful demonstration in support of association. The brutal and bloody attempt to put down these demonstrations backfired and resulted in the Revolution of Dignity that brought down the Yanukovych regime. On 21 February, 2014, president Yanukovych abandoned his post. He went AWOL and eventually showed up in Russia. He was formally impeached by the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) and an arrest warrant was issued.  And later that year, Ukraine did sign an Association Agreement with the EU.

Occupation of the Crimea

As the curtain closed on the Sochi Winter Olympics on 23 February, Putin began his de facto war with Ukraine. As the last visitors to the Olympics were filing through the airport gates, the Russian military rolled its APC’s beyond the confines of their Sevastopol base to begin the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. A second incursion, by Russian Special Ops and the Wagner PMC (Private Military Company), began shortly after, in Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region. Ukraine’s military had been gutted intentionally by Yanukovych to the point that only 6000 troops were battle ready out of a paper force of 130,000. Civilian volunteers, many fresh from the Maidan, formed both the backbone and supply network of the Ukrainian defense.

As the Ukrainian defenses began to push the aggressor back, on Aug. 24, 2014 Putin sent his front line armour and between 4000 and 9000 troops to push the defenders back. In Feb. 2015 a ceasefire was declared with the front lines still safely far away from the main pipelines of the Ukrainian Gas Transit system. Reading the realpolitik tea leaves, Shell Oil abandoned its shale gas field contracts and invested in Nord Stream 2.

For seven years the military conflict was put on hold. Occasional shelling and sniping ensured a steady flow of “cargo 200” (Russian-speak for dead bodies) in both directions from the trenches of the so-called “line of contact”, but the line was not allowed to move.

Putting the last piece in place

Then, in September 2021 the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was completed. It stands full of natural gas, awaiting certification papers from the European Union. With his bypass system finally completed, Putin is ready for war. At last count 127,000 Russian troops plus those of Putin’s Belorusian vassal stand ready to invade at a moments notice. Russian naval landing craft of both the Baltic and Caspian fleets have entered the Black Sea. Trainloads of troops from the far reaches of Siberia are moving westward. Strategic bombers have moved to Belarus and Russia’s western bases. When Ukraine’s Gas Transit System is shattered by Russian Kindzal air-launched ballistic missiles, Putin is sure that shivering Germans will overcome EU bureaucracy and maintain a steady flow of Euros to the Kremlin’s coffers.

Author bio:

Born June 6, 1950 in Munich to post-war immigrant refugees, Myroslav Petriw came to Canada from Germany with his parents the following year and grew up in Toronto. He is a product of Toronto’s vibrant Ukrainian community, a Plastun (Ukrainian Scouting) and a graduate of Kursy Ukrayinoznavstva imeni Hryhoria Skovorody (an intense 5-year course of Ukrainian language, history, archeology, literature, religion, and culture).

Graduating from the University of Toronto in mechanical engineering, he began his career with Ford of Canada in 1973. As a young man, Myroslav’s passion for cars found him racing formula cars at Mt. Tremblant-St. Jovite in Quebec and at Watkins Glen, New York. After moving to British Columbia, he added sailing to his sports repertoire. Myroslav is also an avid mountain biker, cross-country skier, and kayaker.

While working for Ford, he spent his free time writing the Ukrainian language novel Skarb Yaroslava, which won the Anna Pidruchny award for new writers, and was published in Ternopil, Ukraine in 2003. Years later, the publisher called the book a prophecy of the Orange Revolution.

In 2004 he volunteered as an election observer from Canada’s Ukrainian community for the October 31 first-round of presidential elections in Ukraine, serving as one of four observers in the city of Kharkiv in the “russified” eastern part of the country. When he chose to monitor voting in the poverty-stricken Moskovsky Raion of Kharkiv, he observed first-hand what James Mace called “a post-genocidal society.”

Following this first election, Petriw visited Ternopil and Lviv, as well as the city of Kyiv, engaging with Ukraine’s youth and intellectuals of the democracy movement. Doing so he could gauge the build-up of energy, months before it exploded into the Orange Revolution.

Myroslav accepted early retirement from Ford Motor Co. in 2007.

In 2009 he served as a translator during commercial negotiations with Ukraine’s state-run Uranium mining industry.

In Vancouver’s Ukrainian community he has served at various times as president of both the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Vancouver Branch and the UCC Provincial Council. In 2010 he resurrected the local branch of LUC, the League of Ukrainian Canadians, rebuilding it with membership from recent immigrants from Ukraine. Currently he is president of that branch and serves on the National Executive of LUC.

In 2010 he managed Ukraine House during Vancouver’s Winter Olympics on behalf of the UCC and Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee.

He completed his English language novels Yaroslaw’s Treasure in 2009 and Yaroslaw’s Revenge in 2012.

At a December 6, 2008 “National Leaders” ceremony in Edmonton, Myron Petriw was awarded the Taras Shevchenko Medal by Canadian Ukrainian Congress for his “outstanding leadership in community development.” In 2012 he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for work in the community.

From early 2014 Myroslav began writing articles documenting what later became called the Revolution of Dignity, as well as the Muscovite invasions into Ukraine, and the shoot-down of MH-17. His articles were published by the Mackenzie Institute and were added to the dozens of articles he had published in the online newspaper Ukrainian Vancouver.

The death of Myroslav’s wife, Luba, in May 2015 somewhat changed his priorities. He has refocused his attention to the role of patriarch of the Petriw family which has expanded by 3 more grandsons since that sad day. Through constant contact with Ukrainian historians, he has been able to rediscover the history of his own Petriw-Murskyj family. Roots of the family include the composer fr. Mykhailo Verbytsky; activist and consul of the Ukrainian National Republic in Istanbul Volodymyr Murskyj; and pedagogue Ivanna Petriw.

Myroslav visited Ukraine again in 2016 and in 2017. Having bought a mountain bike on the Internet in Lviv prior to his visit, he was able to explore not only the city of Lviv but places like the village of Haii where his great grandfather was the school principal at the turn of the century. He also toured much of Western Ukraine by car, exploring its ancient fortresses and castles.

Today he uses his language skills to monitor, literally hourly, the tense situation on Ukraine’s border with the Russian Federation and Belarus.

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